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23 February 2022

It is fair to say we live in tense international times.

Even as write this wanting to mention Russian Itroops amassing on the Ukraine border and China's activities in the Pacific I am forced by the unpredictability of the times that things could have evolved dramatically by the time these words are published. Such is the nature of the world at the moment that whilst confronting the COVID pandemic, the old global political realities bare their teeth.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been like his immediate predecessors including Deng Xiaoping who thought when it came to world power China should "hide and bide".

President Xi has centralised power, removed presidential term limits and through the "Belt and Road" and other programs sought to expand China's influence in the world.

There is no doubt our relationship with China has changed. China is increasingly assertive and at times aggressive.

We have seen this in the Spratly Islands dispute, the naval laser incident against the RAAF last week and in the sabotage of Australian exports as a tool by China to express unhappiness with stances taken by the Australian Government.

Whatever desperate Liberals in an election year may tell you, the two major Australian political parties take the China reality seriously.

I am proud of Federal Labor's record on China and my own over six years when I was leader of the ALP.

As Mr Morrison seeks to politicise this issue, it is worth remembering that he was a member of the Cabinet that wanted to agree to an extradition treaty between Australia and China.

In 2017, as the Liberals were rushing towards ratifying that treaty we had to say stop.

Labor was not prepared to sign a treaty that would send people back to face China's judicial system, which is plagued with human rights abuses.

As leader I thought this was a terrible idea it could lead to dissidents and democracy fighters seeking refuge with us being sent by us back into the grip of their persecutors.

Myself and my colleagues Penny Wong and Richard Marles faced pressure from both the Turnbull-Morrison Government and the Chinese Government not to stop the ratification but we stood our ground.

Only after Labor objected and other voices joined us did the Liberal Government of the day put aside this terrible idea.

During the same time Labor had a tougher position on the Spratly Islands than the Coalition.

And when the true extent of foreign influence via political donations emerged, I was the first leader and Labor the first party to ban foreign donors. It was only later Mr Morrison and the Coalition reluctantly joined me on this.

Today under Anthony Albanese, Labor continues to have a clear-eyed and hard-headed position on China.

An Essential poll released this week shows more Australians trust Labor to manage the Australian-China relationship than the Coalition.

And with good reason.

Labor's stance on Australia's relationship with China has always been strong and rational.

But rather than being alarmist, Labor continues to outline a calm and consistent approach to managing the relationship.

As former US president Theodore Roosevelt once famously said on the art of diplomacy: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Words to live by as a leader.

An Albanese Labor government will take politics out of issues like China always putting our Australia's national interest first. We always have.

Labor knows there are enduring differences that will need to be managed, but we should always stand up for our interests.

In 2015, Labor would not agree to the China-Australia free trade agreement (Chafta) until the Migration Act was amended to ensure Australian workers were protected first.

The Coalition wanted to sign the agreement with terms that meant foreign workers could be flown in without checking to see if Australian workers were available to do the job.

Labor supports free trade and the bilateral and multilateral agreements that support it, but we wanted an agreement with China that put Australians jobs front and centre.

Today, Labor foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has continued the fight for tougher laws on political donations and to call out Scott Morrison on his willingness to "play politics" with China when it suits him.

So, I don't buy all this rhetoric that Scott Morrison says that, somehow, he loves Australia more than anyone else in politics.

We all love our country. We all want to make sure that our national interests are promoted. But I, for one, get sick and tired of this bloke saying, somehow, he is the super patriot, and everyone else pales in comparison.

That's not the way this country functions. We all love our country here. He should focus on the day job rather than name-calling.

The Coalition would have done better to spend the last nine years preparing our defences rather than picking fights with Labor on the eve of an election.

We need to work with allied and aligned nations, to shape the kind of region that we want, one that is harmonious, prosperous, respects sovereignty and is resilient against threats.

After two years of intense pressure on the Australian people, we also don't need politicians spinning madly about serious realities just to score political points.

Australians will see through that.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 23 February 2022.